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'Indispensability' May Save Indonesia Chief

Suharto to be chosen for seventh term today, despite economic chaos. Many see him as the only hope.

A group of Indonesians gathers in a tile-floored, cement house in a tightly packed area of East Jakarta. Here many of the men are manual laborers, the women take in laundry, and the children run barefoot along lanes that turn to mud in the rain.

It is sometimes said that Indonesia's capital is really two Jakartas. One is a city of mirrored skyscrapers and mobile phones. This is the other one, and its residents are bitter about the economy.

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Prices are soaring as incomes stay flat or disappear. "There's no solution. Prices never go down," says Ari, whose marketing job in a used-car showroom has lifted his family into the lower middle-class.

What about the idea that the key to recovery is the departure of President Suharto, who has ruled for 32 years? "I disagree," he says firmly, crossing his arms. "Mr. Suharto has to stay president. If not, there will be chaos."

"Suharto is president and it's still chaotic," retorts Siti, a heavyset washerwoman with a big smile. "But someone else could be worse."

Today these Indonesians will get their wish. A 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly is set to elect Suharto to a seventh five-year term.

If President Clinton were to stay in office as long, independent counsel Kenneth Starr might be pursuing his investigations into the year 2025.

A different outcome is unimaginable because Suharto - who uses just one name, like his East Jakarta supporters - is the only candidate.

Directly or indirectly, he appointed or approved nearly all the representatives at the Assembly. This election is fixed, but it is a fix Indonesians - and many governments around the world - have been willing to sanction because of Suharto's effectiveness as a ruler and economic manager.

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Lost consensus?

The country's eight-month-old economic crisis has thrown that arrangement into jeopardy. Some members of the Indonesian elite are beginning to describe Suharto as the problem and not the solution. Diplomats from foreign governments are firming up lines of communication with those who oppose him. Students are openly calling for his ouster.

Perhaps most unmanageable for Suharto, financial markets are starting to react badly to his every word.

But the reality remains in East Jakarta and countless other neighborhoods and villages that Suharto is Indonesia's indispensable leader. He seems to think so too: Although he is well into his eighth decade, he has done nothing visible to arrange a succession. His political opposition is fragmented and unorganized and his support from the military is solid.

Suharto's history

Nonetheless, Suharto's life has been one of considerable achievement for a peasant villager from central Java, Indonesia's main island. His family was too poor to buy him the clothes he needed to attend public school, so he finished his education in a charitable Muslim institution. He did not find his footing until he joined the military run by Indonesia's Dutch colonizers shortly before World War II.

Suharto ended up fighting the Dutch after the war and distinguished himself in the country's independence struggle. Undoubtedly the most significant moment of his life occurred in 1965, when Indonesia was convulsed by tensions between Communists and the military. The country's founding father, then-President Sukarno, was flirting with Communist support when renegade soldiers killed six top generals.

For reasons not yet fully understood, then General Suharto's name was not on the list of those to be assassinated and he stepped into the vacuum. As the country entered a period of horrific attacks on communists and their supporters, who were blamed for the antimilitary coup, Suharto consolidated power and eased Sukarno out of office. The number of dead will never be known, but many estimates suggest a half million Indonesians died.

His 'New Order'

Suharto will forever be acclaimed for his actions during this crisis and the years that followed. He instilled calm and a government called the New Order that emphasized development and took contentious politics out of the picture.

As a result, says Hadi Soesastro, an economist and political observer at the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, "Suharto is seen by his friends and his foes as a hero."

In the villages, many Indonesians refer to him as "father."

He took over a country that was desperately poor - a "basket case" in the language of the 1960s and 1970s and turned it into a prosperous "emerging market." Until the middle of last year, roughly 10 percent of Indonesia's people were considered to be in absolute poverty. When he took power, half the country was unable to eat enough everyday. Literacy and life expectancy have both surged during Suharto's rule.

In terms of his macroeconomic leadership - the setting of budgets and the definition of national priorities - "until the last six months few could say there were any better decisionmakers in the world," says H. Benjamin Fisher, deputy director of the World Bank office in Jakarta.

The grand political bargain

For the sake of these economic gains, Indonesians let him establish an authoritarian political system in which he is virtually the only player. In some ways, this system conforms with the Javanese notion of power and Suharto seems to rule accordingly. He seeks advice broadly, but keeps his own counsel. Scholars point out that Javanese kings simply have power. They do not share it.

Bargain with the West

Internationally, the calculus of support was geopolitical. Suharto was and is anti-communist, which suited Western nations during the cold war. In more recent years, he has won international approval by at least showing some improvement in human rights, although his decision to occupy the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975 has drawn widespread censure, as have other Indonesian violations of civil and political liberties.

Through it all, the economy has expanded and most Indonesians have benefited from his rule, despite the curtailment of political freedom. Subagio Anam, an adviser to Megawati Sukarnoputri, a key figure in Indonesia's amorphous opposition, calls the political system "watertight." The president is said to have "the five M's": might, money, an overwhelming legislative majority, control of the media, and a formidable ability to manipulate the levers of power.

Add to that the support of Indonesia's military, and its easy to see why Suharto is entering his fourth decade in power. He has disturbed the situation somewhat this decade by courting Muslim support, which is controversial here because of fears that the country could become an Islamic state. The population is mostly Muslim, but many Indonesian followers of Islam are social moderates who want nothing to do with the a rigidly Islamist state.

This economic crisis has partially derailed Suharto, says Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of Muslim organization with more than 30 million members who has slowly agitated for more democracy and been chastised for it. "But he will find a new balance," he says.

Others aren't so sure. In addition to Indonesia's one-man-show political structure, Suharto has also gotten away with many microeconomic mistakes that contrast with his macroeconomic mastery. He uses patronage for political advantage, allowing family members and favored businesspeople to profit from cartels and monopolies.

As a result, his children and good friends have made billion-dollar fortunes during his rule.

Now these arrangements are under unprecedented attack by the International Monetary Fund, the lending agency offering some $43 billion in assistance to Indonesia if Suharto carries out reforms. Economists say the cartels and monopolies are not the major cause of Indonesia's economic problems, but reforms in this area are symbolically important.

But such changes would mean fundamental alterations in the power structure that Suharto has created - one that is rooted in cultural ideas about leadership.

Adding authority

In the meantime, the president is adding to his power. This week the People's Consultative Assembly is expected to approve a measure that will give Suharto expanded authority to handle the crisis.

This decree would provide him with "unfettered power," according to Marzuki Darusman, a former legislator who is a vice chairman of the government's National Commission on Human Rights. Mr. Darusman says there may be a practical benefit to the decree, if it is "tied to a scenario of change or to facilitate a transition."

"We have to hope for the best that this [decree] is not misused," he says.

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